Adams wins historic vote from Sinn Fein to back Irish police forces

Irish republicans have voted overwhelmingly to support the policing systems in both parts of Ireland, in a move which was hailed as a historic change of heart and a key moment in the peace process.

A special meeting of Sinn Fein in Dublin yesterday overwhelmingly endorsed the recommendation of the president Gerry Adams and other party leaders to support in particular the police and justice system in Northern Ireland.

With Sinn Fein and Tony Blair both anxious to get a new devolved Belfast administration up and running as soon as possible, attention will now switch to Sinn Fein's potential partners in government, the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist party.

The next two months are expected to see a flurry of activity in the slow-moving peace process with an election expected to forge a new powersharing coalition by late March.

Yesterday's convincing Sinn Fein vote came after a lengthy debate in which critics of the police were clearly outnumbered by those loyal to the Adams' line that the time had come for a radical departure from tradition.

Afterwards Mr Adams told delegates: "You have created the opportunity to significantly advance our struggle and to further our primary objective of a united ireland. Today you have created the potential to change the political landscape on this island forever."

In the run-up to yesterday's debate Sinn Fein held a dozen public meetings as well as hundreds of private events to thrash out the merits of the issue. Some in the grassroots were clearly emotionally opposed to the move, while several mid-ranking political representatives will not be standing for election again.

But the vote was overwhelming as those with doubts put their misgivings aside and went along with the leadership, which argued that a deal on policing was necessary for "the strategic advancement of the republican struggle."

In London, Tony Blair's spokesman said he welcomed what he described as the historic decision, adding that he, "recognised the leadership it has taken to get to this point".

Mr Paisley's reaction is now keenly awaited as Downing Street prepares to make the call on holding an election. While all the signs are that the DUP leader wants to go ahead, there are signs of dissension. It remains to be seen whether Mr Paisley will meet this head on and face down his internal critics. As Sinn Fein has just done, he may well need to undertake a marketing operation to argue that he should contemplate a coalition with republicans.

Peace process timetable

* 30 JANUARY: Sinn Fein executive will meet to consider the practicalities of the party's decision to support policing in Northern Ireland.

* FEBRUARY: The Government will push Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist party to react by agreeing to enter a powersharing government with Sinn Fein. The Government will then decide whether to proceed with assembly elections

* 7 MARCH: Election date. The prediction is that the two largest parties will be the DUP and Sinn Fein, which means they will be entitled to the posts of First Minister and Deputy First Minister. The nominees for these are expected to be Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness.

* 26 MARCH: Assembly to be convened in the hope that the DUP and Sinn Fein will agree to go into government together.